On the Button

More great words of wisdom from Giles Smith, The Times. December 15, 2009

Jenson Button undone as victory and viewers desert him

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards at the Sheffield Arena
Giles Smith: sport on television

Poor old Jenson Button. There he was, on his final lap, seemingly coasting towards the chequered flag that would signal the first BBC Sports Personality of the Year victory of his racing career, only for a startled-looking Ryan Giggs to appear in his wing mirror, pull out of the slipstream and somehow scream across the line ahead of him.

So close to glory, then, for the Formula One world champion — and yet so far. And we all know how it plays, personality-wise: nobody remembers who came second.

Here’s the good news, though: almost no one was watching. Only 4.7 million tuned in for the BBC’s sports review, down from 10 million in 2008, the audience laid waste by the final agonies of The X Factor, which peaked at a near Morecambe & Wise-esque 19.1 million viewers.

Surely the old philosophical conundrum about the tree falling in the forest applies here. If a racing driver finishes second in the Sports Personality of the Year contest, but almost nobody in the country witnessed it because they were watching ITV, can it truly be said to have happened?

It did happen, though, I swear. It only felt like it didn’t. Giggs, remember, made only 15 first-team starts for Manchester United last season and, accordingly, he must have gone to the Sheffield Arena on Sunday night fully expecting to be a sub. At the most he must have imagined he would get on for a brief cameo in the final quarter of an hour if things weren’t quite going to plan. Yet, incredibly, he found himself the first name down on the teamsheet.

Talk about a schoolboy dream. Never has a decent run in the Carling yielded quite so much.

The temptation is to put it down to Manchester United fans, weighting the voting. But for that to happen, surely, the show would have had to kick off at lunchtime, to catch the market in Asia. In the event, when the phone lines closed, it was merely 5.45am in Tokyo — too early, surely, for a Pacific Rim-effect to take hold.

Or maybe everyone thought it was meant to be a lifetime achievement award. But no, again, because that went to Seve Ballesteros, in a moving ceremony conducted via satellite. And how nice it was, in the closing days of 2009, to go to the home of a professional golfer and find a scene of comfortably upholstered bliss, with nobody menacing anybody else with a seven-iron.

Rueful times for the BBC’s sporting flagship, though — and with more to come, given that The X Factor clearly has no intention of shifting its tanks from the lawn any time soon. At present rates of attrition, it won’t be many years before everyone who wants to see the Sports Personality of the Year elected can go along to the Sheffield Arena and witness it in person. And not long after that, they’ll be holding the ceremony round at Sue Barker’s place, over a couple of bottles of white and a plate of mini chicken kievs.

The show has a choice: give up, or fight back. We say, fight back. Make some changes, and then go to war. Let’s get the old stunts going again, for starters. Who will ever forget the sight of Desmond Lynam clamping his finger in the faulty Aintree starting gate, or that terrible indoor penalty shoot-out they held one year? This year’s show was the lightest on extraneous gimmickry for ages — just a bit of gymnastics from Beth Tweddle on a mat, and nothing else. In all honesty, we prefer it that way, but there’s a light-entertainment battle being waged here, and if that means getting Phillips Idowu to jump over a Transit van pulled by Kauto Star, then so be it.

Another thing: let’s go to more people’s houses. The section chez Ballesteros was easily the best portion of this year’s show. More sitting rooms, please. Let’s see the year’s big sporting performers put in a few final hard yards where it counts — among the scatter cushions.

Better still, let’s go to people’s houses and make them play Twister.

Moreover, if the consequence of turning the contest over to the public, in the form of a phone vote, is anomalies like Giggs’s victory — or Zara Phillips’s in 2006 — then the BBC should abandon that way of doing things and simply go back to rigging it, the way it always used to (we tended to assume).

Above all, the show needs to take pride in its own, hard-won stature — to hold firm against the barbarian hoards from the other side, and remember what it is, and what it has come to mean. OK, so nobody remembers who came second. But, some years on The X Factor, nobody remembers who came first, either. A victory on the Sports Personality of the Year show, on the other hand, is for ever. While the show survives, that is. And survive it must.

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